| Sheila Howell
I have a special place in my heart for antique mirrors. Something about them just seems to reach out and grab me, pull me in, and speak to my soul.
I don't know when this obsession began, or even why. I just know that I'm not the only one, especially when it comes to mirrors made with real mercury glass.
The early days
Mercury glass has been around since the early 16th century, when Del Gallo Glassmakers on the island of Murano in Venice invented a way to apply a reflective mercury-tin alloy to plate glass. The mirrors they produced seem crude by modern standards, but they were far superior to anything that had come before.
The process was extremely expensive, but demand was huge all across Europe. All of the great houses coveted the Venetian mercury glass mirrors, and were willing to put up huge sums to acquire these mirrors for their own homes. After all, what aristocratic lady could live without one?
There was so much wealth involved that for 150 years the Venice mirror makers' guild restricted travel for its members, to keep the technology from spreading. But in the mid-17th century, France spirited away some of the Italian craftsmen and started its own royal mirror factory at Saint-Gobain.
When Louis XIV built his magnificent palace at Versailles, the French factory supplied the pieces used in the chateau's famous Hall of Mirrors – 357 of them in all, spread among 17 soaring arches, facing 17 huge arcade windows.
The breathtaking power of mercury glass. Even kings were entranced!
The technology eventually spread throughout Europe, but it wasn't until 1835 that mirror making got easier. That year, a German chemist named Justus von Liebig invented silvering, a technique that's still in use today, which uses silver rather than mercury to make glass reflective. It was much cheaper and safer than working with toxic, unstable liquid mercury, and soon the silvered mirrors were being mass produced.
Still, real mercury glass continued to be made, and didn't completely die out until the start of the 20th century.
The funny part: for many years silvered glass was still called mercury glass. Even today, modern silvered glass ornaments and tableware are referred to as mercury glass, and are extremely popular. You just have to know what you're looking for.
Real, antique mercury glass mirrors
Here at European Finds, when we refer to a mercury glass mirror, we're talking about the real thing – old, old mirrors made with mercury. There are a few things that set these beautiful pieces apart from their newer silvered counterparts.
- There will almost always be imperfections in the glass. Made without the benefit of modern machinery, old glass was thicker and less uniform. You may notice some rippling in your reflection.
- While silvered glass tends to tarnish over time to a yellowish hue, mercury glass is made with tin, which oxidizes to a bluish-grayish tint.
- Real mercury glass was made with a 25/75 alloy where liquid mercury filled the spaces between tin crystals. Over the years, some of the mercury would evaporate and some would flow toward the base of the mirror, leaving hollows between the crystals. This lack of reflective mercury is what causes the dark splotches, clouding and freckling in old mirrors, while the higher concentration near the bottom of the glass could also lead to extra deterioration.
- Yes, mercury vapor is highly toxic. But studies have shown that these old mirrors, even in musty museum back rooms filled with them, do not pose a health hazard.
In general, the most desirable antique mirrors are the ones that have never been restored, repainted, or re-gilded. And that goes for unrepaired, unreplaced mercury glass as well.
I love the look of these old mirrors – not just the lovely frames, but the glass too. They don't make this anymore, so it just oozes history to me. Age spots and all, real mercury glass is simply irreplaceable. And that makes me love it even more.
Love what you see? Find these mercury glass antiques on EuropeanFinds:
Featured Image: 19th Century Mercury Glass Mirror with Gold Frame
Inset Image: Mercury Candlesticks